Kevin Muente, American Gothic, 2013. Oil on canvas.

By Rebecca Flagg

Figure 1. Caravaggio, St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604

Figure 1. Caravaggio, St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604

Figure 2. Kevin Muente, Work Night, oil on canvas,

Figure 2. Kevin Muente, Work Night, oil on canvas,

Figure 3. Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930,

Figure 3. Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930,

Figure 4. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #33, 1977-1980

Figure 4. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #33, 1977-1980

Figure 5. Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild, 1662

Figure 5. Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild, 1662

 

American Gothic by Kevin Muente is a full-length portrait of a man holding a shotgun, set theatrically in a hyper-realistic, nighttime landscape. The viewer is positioned below looking up towards the main figure, which coupled with the artist’s use of chiaroscuro lighting, produces a theatrical effect as though the viewer is sitting in a proscenium theater, looking up at a stage play. Kevin Muente draws inspiration from past masters and historical techniques, as seen in his Caravaggesque chiaroscuro, with light spilling dramatically into the picture from an unseen source beyond the left frame of the painting. Historical allusion is also evident in Muente’s title, which is identical with the iconic twentieth century American painting by Grant Wood, which informs Muente’s composition despite its obvious differences.

In Muente’s work, it appears to be a cold winter’s night. The dark sky is hazy, and the central figure warmly dressed. Dead leaves litter the ground. The main figure is a middle-aged man with a gray beard, old jeans, and layered clothing. He grasps his shotgun, its barrel pointing to the right edge of the picture as he gazes toward the left. A barn located in the back left, and the faint, dimly lit house windows on the right, are the only sources of light that the viewer can see in the painting. It seems as if there is a greater source pouring in from the left side, illuminating the man as he gazes intently into the unknown light, which is reminiscent of the lighting techniques of Caravaggio.

There are definite links to past masters in Muente’s work, and the striking light effects are reminiscent of those by Caravaggio. Throughout Caravaggio’s body of work, his subjects are almost always illuminated as though by spotlight in some kind of film noir universe where it is always midnight. We see this especially in the work Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Fig. 1). Arguably, Caravaggio’s most engaging artistic legacy is his use of light, which heightens the psychological intensity of his subjects. In American Gothic and other works, such as Work Night (Fig. 2), Muente employs Caravaggesque lighting for similar reasons.

The most obvious historical reference in Muente’s painting is to one of the most familiar paintings of the 20th century, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (Fig. 3). Wood’s piece depicts a modest wooden Carpenter Gothic farmhouse, with, standing in front, the people who he imagined to live in that house.[1] There are two central figures: an older man on the right holding a pitchfork who breaks the picture plane with his gaze, and a younger woman by his side, furrowing her brow and staring into the distance. The man’s pitchfork is not only echoed in the stitching of the bib of his overalls, but in the windows of the house and even in the structure of his face.

There are many differences between Muente’s and Wood’s American Gothic. Upon first observation, the most obvious difference is that there are two figures in Wood’s piece rather than one in Muente’s. Muente’s piece is full length, and takes place at night rather than daytime. The man in Wood’s work is holding a pitchfork, which is a representation of labor, or simply a symbol of life in the country in the agrarian corners of early twentieth century America. In Muente’s piece, the man is holding a shotgun rather than a pitchfork. The shotgun, like the pitchfork, is a prop or attribute of the man who holds it, but it is no symbol of labor. It is rather a twenty-first century symbol of rural American culture in an age of Duck Dynasty. Both items held by the men are symbols of identity, and Muente’s adaptation of Wood’s painting comments on how rural American life and its perception and meaning have changed from the early twentieth to the early twenty-first century.

In Muente’s American Gothic, with its low viewpoint, dramatic lighting, and theater-like staging, the central figure performs like a character actor playing the part of twenty-first century backwoods eccentric. The painting recalls in this sense the staged “film stills” of photographer Cindy Sherman (Fig. 4). The painting’s viewpoint, along with the theatrical lighting are conventions similar to those used in theater, where the use of lighting creates evocative settings to promote the viewer’s suspension of disbelief and immersion in the performance. Muente’s work accomplishes a similar effect through compositional devices and through the artist’s mastery of realism, whether this was his intention or not. The well-lit stage in the darkened auditorium is a theater archetype.[2] Lighting techniques in theater are necessary, and the intensity of the illumination can reflect a source of dramatic tension and narrative control. There are obvious benefits of lighting, and a darkened auditorium adds to the drama of a performance. With this being said, Muente especially achieves an added element of drama, and relationship with the viewer, by utilizing an “audience-stage” relationship, as a close and integrated experience achieved by dramatic lighting.

An excellent analogy for this approach to composition and viewer engagement is found in the stage-like qualities in Rembrandt’s famous painting of The Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild” (Fig. 5). In this masterpiece, there are six figures surrounding a table, all breaking the plane and looking towards the viewer as if they were interrupted. In this work, as in Muente’s, the viewer is located beneath the action of the image which is set up deliberately like a stage.[3] In both pieces, the viewer is looking upward at the subject, breaking in on the subject’s narrative, or perhaps looking upon a single snapshot of a scene in some dramatic stage-play.

Kevin Muente’s use of theatrical lighting and interesting point of view for the viewer make his work American Gothic not only a work of art, but an experience for the spectator. Muente provocatively sets a scene, but leaves the story line hanging unresolved, and open to the imagination of the engaged viewer.

 

 

 

[1] For further reading on Grant Wood’s American Gothic, see “The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’”. Wanda M. Corn and Grant Wood.

Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 10, The Art Institute of Chicago Centennial Lectures (1983), pp. 252-275.

[2] Barlow, Anthony D.. “Lighting Control and Concepts of Theatre Activity.” Educational Theatre Journal 25, no. 2 (1973): 135-146.

[3] Binstock, Benjamin. “Seeing Representations; Or, The Hidden Master in Rembrandt’s Syndics.” Representations 83, no. 1 (2003): 1-37.

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